I first saw little free libraries several years ago when I was walking through a Washington, D.C., neighborhood with my daughter.
Neighbors had set up their own personal book exchanges in front of their homes, offering books for free with the expectation that book takers would donate books they wanted to pass on. The concept was take one, exchange one.
After I returned home, I was so enthusiastic about little free libraries that I wrote a piece about the idea for Honolulu Civil Beat. I also started my own neighborhood book exchange on our Diamond Head street.
That’s when the trouble started. My box full of books was soon hauled away by thieves. Reluctant to give up, I started another free library, which also was stolen. Just days after I set up the third book exchange, it also disappeared.
The old saying “the third try is the charm” failed to happen. I changed that cliche to “the third try is the curse.” I figured that’s that. I am done.
Stealing little free libraries is shameful. It is difficult to imagine a hardened criminal bragging to his friends: “Hey, I just ripped off a woman’s homemade book exchange.” All his crooked cronies would be laughing their heads off at his depravity.
When I wrote my first column on little free libraries, Kris Huson, the then-marketing director of the national Little Free Library nonprofit organization in Hudson, Wisconsin, seemed stunned such a thing could happen. She called it a very bad act like “wrecking a kid’s lemonade stand.”
She’s right. However, I decided to give it another try in January when my daughter gave me a belated birthday surprise: my fourth and current library. It is still operating now thanks to the fact that she hired a carpenter to cement it into the lava wall in front of our house.
Looking back, it is now clear that my first three libraries were doomed because they were easy to heist: each was set up in a plastic clothes storage box that was placed on top of our wall with nothing to hold it down.
As soon as one was stolen, I would drive up to the Kaimuki Goodwill and buy another plastic box to replace it. The worst part is the thieves probably wanted the plastic boxes not the books. It would have been comforting to think they were just eager readers.
My new little free library — designed in the mid-century modern architectural style — might also be thriving and safe now because of the pandemic. During the darkest days of the Covid-19 shutdowns many people renewed their love of reading and by extension, their love and respect for libraries, even small neighborhood book exchanges like mine.
Margret Aldrich, the current marketing director of the Little Free Library organization, said nearly 20,000 libraries were added to its network in 2020 compared to 15,000 in the previous year.
“Volume grew by roughly a third. This trend has continued,” she wrote in an email.
The libraries have been a fun distraction during the pandemic. On the scariest days when hundreds of people were getting infected, I regularly walked from my house to check out three different Little Free Libraries in Kaimuki where it was always interesting to see the wide variety of books offered for sharing.
In one of the boxes, I found a cookbook “Tassajara Dinners and Desserts” that I still turn to at least once a week for cooking ideas.
Shelley Pellegrino says during the early days of the coronavirus, some little library stewards emptied out and closed down their collections because it was feared a person could get Covid-19 by touching infected surfaces. Now as infections and hospitalization numbers are rapidly falling, many neighborhood book exchanges have reopened.
Pellegrino has launched the Facebook page Little Free Library Maui to encourage more people on the Valley Isle to set up neighborhood book exchanges.
Three years ago, her son, Jonathan Merchant, enlisted family members, community volunteers and fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 40, which is sponsored by the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission, to help him build three little free libraries for his Eagle Scout project.
One of the libraries is situated on the grounds of Wailuku Hongwanji Mission, another is on Market Street in the center of Wailuku and a third is at Nohoana Farm in Waikapu.
Merchant is currently a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. In a phone conversation from the college, he recalled how rewarding it was to launch the Maui libraries.
“It is not that difficult to bring a lot of benefits to the community. It made the whole project worthwhile to see everyone come together to build them and to freely donate so many books. And now, to know three years later that people are still enjoying them,” he said.
Hawaii state librarian Stacey Aldrich calls the neighborhood libraries fantastic. “They are an extension of what we are trying to do to encourage more people to read good books,” she said.
Plans for constructing book exchanges can be found on the Little Free Library website. It also offers preconstructed libraries for sale.
When I wrote my first column on little free libraries in September 2015, only five of them were officially registered with littlefreelibrary.org in Hawaii.
Now, the organization has 77 free libraries in Hawaii on its world map, Aldrich said, and that doesn’t include libraries in the islands whose stewards declined to put them on the map.
It is a growing worldwide movement. Little free libraries are operating on all seven continents, including Antarctica. There are more than 125,000 of them including in countries it hurts to think about such as war-ravaged Ukraine, which has 23 little free libraries. The majority of the libraries are in the United States.
Carpenter-craftsman Todd Bol started the Little Free Library movement in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009 by building a little red schoolhouse he placed on a pole in his front yard to pay tribute to his late mother’s love of reading.
Bol stocked the schoolhouse replica with dozens of books to give to passersby for free.
Friends and neighbors who took Bol’s books were intrigued and asked him for advice on how to start their own book exchanges. Bol then built another 30 book-exchange houses for them to set up in their yards.
As interest grew, Bol partnered with community development educator Rick Brooks to form Little Free Library, the nonprofit national organization.
Their intention was to create more free book exchanges in the United States than 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie had done with his donation of 2,510 public libraries. They quickly exceeded that goal. Their concept of sharing resonated with many people.
Besides books, some of the neighborhood exchanges during the pandemic expanded their scope to share canned foods and other essentials such as toilet paper and cleaning products.
When Catherine Cruz and I walked along Portlock Road last summer, we came across a little free library that offered not only free books but also seeds and plant cuttings in pots as well as canned beans and piles of fresh baby eggplant.
The exchanges have become a way to bring neighbors together in a shared love of reading and community.
In the grand opening of my library, even though the pandemic was still in full swing, my neighbors and I stood on our driveway eating Korean sushi and drinking French Champagne as we gave speeches about the books we donated and expressed our hopes for brighter days ahead.
I like to think the connection we made that evening over books will continue to grow stronger.
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